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New Left Review 26, March-April 2004

Interview with the path-breaking historian of the Nakba, who bluntly defends the centrality of ethnic cleansing to the Zionist project. A glaring light on the realities of Israeli state-building, with or without the mask of ‘peace process’.


Few figures in Israeli public life have done more to recover the historical truth of the fate of the Palestinians at the hands of the Zionist movement than Benny Morris, interviewed below. For several decades one of the leading historians of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Morris began his career—at a time when such research was still all but completely taboo in his own community—by starting to lift the veil on the ethnic cleansings on which the state of Israel was founded, in his ground-breaking work The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem (1988). Undeterred by the ensuing odium, he continued his investigations with notable courage and independence of mind, going on to produce an iconoclastic study of Israel’s subsequent border wars (1993), and unearthing further damning evidence of the premeditated expulsion of Palestinian populations by the leadership of the Yishuv (‘Revisiting the Palestinian exodus of 1948’, in Rogan and Shlaim, eds, The War for Palestine, 2001). Morris is also the author of a major synthesis of the story of Zionist colonization and Arab reactions to it, from Ottoman times to the present: Righteous Victims (1999). The hallmark of Morris’s work has been a tough-minded realism—the inclination of a former paratrooper for the idf to call a spade a spade, whatever discomfort it might cause his co-nationals. These are the qualities that make the interview below, first published in the liberal daily Haaretz on 8 January 2004, under the title ‘Survival of the Fittest’, a document of unusual significance in the modern history of Zionism—and reproduced here for that reason. To his shocked interlocutor, Morris lays out two unpalatable truths: that the Zionist project could only be realized by deliberate ethnic cleansing; and that, once it was embarked upon, the only reasons for stopping short of the complete elimination of the Arab population from Palestine were purely temporary and tactical ones. It is letting the second of these cats out of the bag that has led to most uproar among conventional opponents of the Likud and Labour establishments. Arguments for the wholesale ejection of the Palestinians from the Promised Land have long been openly expressed on the right of the Israeli spectrum, while more sotto voce justifications of ethnic transfers—typically invoking the expulsion of Ionian Greeks or Sudeten Germans as commendable examples—have freely circulated in labour and liberal circles, in Israel and the diaspora. But Morris’s forthright judgement that Ben-Gurion made a fatal mistake in not also clearing the future West Bank of its Arab inhabitants comes with the unique authority of one still at work revealing hidden atrocities from the War of Independence. The same rigour that he has brought to Zionist war crimes he now brings to the underlying logic of Zionism—left or right. In doing so, Morris—invoking Camus—here places himself squarely on the side of his community, whatever the disasters it has inflicted on the Palestinians that he has unsparingly recorded. In accompanying his arguments about the predicaments of Israel with the crudest stereotypes of Islamic and Arab barbarianism, Morris gave his critics an easy stick to beat him with. His comparison of the fate of the Palestinians with the positive example of the elimination of the native populations needed to build the United States could hardly be welcome to American Zionism, and Morris has been obliged to express his regrets on this point. Within Israel too, hubbub over such remarks has allowed attention to be deflected from the central issue raised by Morris’s outspoken intervention. For what it does is strike at the heart of the self-serving recipes for peace harboured by the overwhelming majority of Israeli opponents of Likud and Labour alike: the idea that a ‘final settlement’ which gives the Palestinians 18 per cent or less of the land they once inhabited is morally or politically defensible. Only on the cynically pragmatic grounds that the Jewish population of Israel will never yield a square metre of what it has taken, so the Palestinians should accept whatever remnant they can get, could such a solution be justified. But there is always a realism colder even than this one. On the same premises, the logic of Morris’s position is impregnable. If the Palestinians can be battered down to a point where they are made to crouch helplessly within less than a fifth of the country, why not finish them off and expel the residue altogether? The merit of Morris’s candour is to make it plain that the ‘peace process’ in all its guises—as multifarious as they are monotonous: Oslo, Camp David, Taba, Road Map or Geneva—is little more than war against the Palestinians by other means. The lesson of the interview is crystal clear. There are only two acceptable solutions to the Palestinian conflict: an equal division of the land between two communities that are now of roughly equal size, or the creation of a single state embracing both.



Introduction and Interview by Ari Shavit

Benny Morris says he was always a Zionist. People were mistaken when they labelled him a post-Zionist, when they thought that his historical study on the birth of the Palestinian refugee problem was intended to undercut the Zionist enterprise. Nonsense, Morris says, that’s completely unfounded. Some readers simply misread the book. They didn’t read it with the same detachment, the same moral neutrality, with which it was written. So they came to the mistaken conclusion that when Morris describes the cruellest deeds that the Zionist movement perpetrated in 1948 he is actually being condemnatory, that when he describes the large-scale expulsion operations he is being denunciatory. They did not conceive that the great documenter of the sins of Zionism in fact identifies with those sins. That he thinks some of them, at least, were unavoidable. Two years ago, different voices started to be heard. The historian who was considered a radical leftist suddenly maintained that Israel had no-one to talk to. The researcher who was accused of being an Israel-hater (and was boycotted by the Israeli academic establishment) began to publish articles in favour of Israel in the British newspaper, the Guardian.

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Benny Morris, ‘On Ethnic Cleansing’, NLR 26: £3

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